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Japan Reels From Tsunami, Quake: Did Preparations Work?

March 11, 2011 at 5:45 PM EDT
Strong building codes are thought to have saved thousands of lives in the wake of a massive earthquake that struck northeastern Japan. Judy Woodruff talks about the damage with the Council on Foreign Relations' Sheila Smith, Chris Meinig of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and structural engineer Jim Harris.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And back to the earthquake and tsunami story.

For more on the magnitude of this and Japan’s efforts, I am joined by Sheila Smith — she’s a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Chris Meinig, a lead engineer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His team tracks tsunamis around the globe, and that information is used to give warnings and forecasts. And Jim Harris, he is a structural engineer whose firm designs earthquake-resistant buildings, among other things.

Thank you, all three, for being with us.

Sheila Smith, to you first. You know the country of Japan. Help us — this — this devastation happened in the northeastern part of the country around the city of Sendai. Give us a sense of what that area was like before disaster struck.

SHEILA SMITH, Council on Foreign Relations: Sure, Judy.

It was a lovely part of Japan. It wasn’t as densely populated as other sections down further south, the Tokyo region and further south. But nonetheless, it was a place where many Japanese traveled as tourists or business — for business trips. Sendai was not a small town. It was a 15th — it’s the 15th largest city in Japan, so it’s a medium-size city by Japanese standards.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two million…

SHEILA SMITH: Two million population, right.

So, when you are looking at the video clips, a lot of what we are seeing are a number of coastal areas, and some smaller villages, some fishing ports, for example, that fires are at. But Sendai itself is a very modern city, and it’s a large city.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a highly populated area.

SHEILA SMITH: A highly populated area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Chris Meinig, help us understand. The earthquake hit, and then there was triggered this tsunami. Help us understand what happened there.

CHRIS MEINIG, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Sure.

The earthquake was a very large earthquake, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, that happened in about one kilometer of water. And, of course, the tsunami was generated from this that was felt across the Pacific, but most devastating in Japan itself. And we’re still seeing the effects of the tsunami right now, as the coast of South America will be hit by small tsunami waves here shortly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why was there so little warning? We were told just a few minutes that the tsunami followed the quake.

CHRIS MEINIG: Yes, that’s right, because the speed and devastation of the tsunami is amazing. In the open ocean, it will travel the speed of a jetliner. But being so close to shore, there’s really only few moments to react.

And the best reaction is to react to the earthquake, to head to higher ground. And of course, the Japanese have this very much in their culture. And they understand this. The word tsunami itself is Japanese. And they are brought and taught from a very early age to react immediately from the earthquake and head to higher ground and to basically save yourself, because there really isn’t time for a warning in the near field event.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we heard in the report we just saw that there are some seawalls that are built around the country and in this part of the country but not where this tsunami hit. So, there’s not — it’s not possible to prevent this from doing the kind of devastation that it did.

CHRIS MEINIG: Yes, that’s correct, Judy.

It’s really — the prevention is in the teaching beforehand, you know, in the generations of bringing up and understanding the warning and effect, because the seawalls are typically built large enough to cover from the last tsunami. Or, if there hadn’t been one in the region, perhaps there’s no seawall at all.

So, these events are just absolutely devastating. And the best thing we can do is be prepared for the near-shore event through education and outreach and constant drilling, very much like the Japanese do, and then for the rest of the Pacific region, have the ocean instrumentation in place so we can monitor it as it travels across the ocean.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Harris, a structural engineer, we heard that Japan — we heard another engineer say Japan may be the best structurally prepared country in the world for earthquakes.

If you agree with that, or even if you don’t, help us understand what — what is done to make these buildings withstand the force of something like what happened today.

JIM HARRIS, structural engineer, JRH Harris Company: Oh, yes, actually, I do agree that the Japanese are very well prepared for an event that is almost impossible to prepare for.

This particular earthquake, I think, is far larger than they would have been considering as what I will call a design event, that which they try to anticipate in designing buildings and bridges and other structures. I happen to know Kit Miyamoto, who was on your show earlier. I didn’t realize he was the person being interviewed until I was listening — standing here in the studio.

Japan, the U.S., at least Western U.S., and New Zealand, which ironically was struck by a big earthquake not long ago, and Chile are some of the most well-prepared nations on the Earth with respect to earthquakes. We have areas that, if an earthquake hit, it might look more like Haiti than Chile, for example, but…

JUDY WOODRUFF: We being?

JIM HARRIS: We being the U.S.

JUDY WOODRUFF: United States.

JIM HARRIS: But on the West Coast, there is a long tradition of building buildings to generally withstand earthquakes. Now, they don’t necessarily come through undamaged.

And we really don’t design buildings to resist tsunamis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you heard — we heard the eye witnesses in Tokyo today talking about violent shaking of these buildings. What were you thinking as you were hearing that?

JIM HARRIS: That it was a big earthquake, yes. But I knew that already because of e-mail alerts from the U.S. Geological Survey, which does a great job of putting the information out.

But what happens is the ground moves back and forth very rapidly. And the building sitting on it sort of shakes as it struggles to keep up with the ground. And there’s a bit of a whiplash effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s one thing to build — it’s one thing to build a building to protect against an earthquake, but when you have the tsunami on the coastal area, in the coastal area, coming, washing over buildings, what can be done to protect building in a path of something like that?

JIM HARRIS: The — the typical strategy is to avoid building in those places. And earthquakes occur so rarely that, in many places, it’s forgotten or not known that it is a tsunami-prone coastline, for example. It’s not the same every place, by any means.

With bridges, you can build very strong piers and put the decks so high that they are above where the waves will be. Of course, that’s not necessarily where people want their bridges, sometimes. But with buildings, in general, you don’t make them strong enough to withstand the force of moving water.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sheila Smith, you have studied this country. How good a job — how well did the government of Japan do today in responding to everything?

SHEILA SMITH: Well, I think they also had had — not this particular government, but the Japanese government has had practice from the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which your report mentioned.

And, at that time, the government response was very weak. And the Japanese public criticized them badly for a delayed response, for not getting there in time, not getting their priorities in order. But, last night, we saw a government that was very focused, very quick, and their priorities were very clear.

They got the self-defense forces in quickly. They got mobilized. They mobilized the Coast Guard, the fire, the police. So there’s no intra-service competition here. It’s a very calm, orderly, and all-out, comprehensive response, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we know, Sheila Smith, that this is a country that has been struggling economically for some time. How big a setback could this be?

SHEILA SMITH: Well, I think my — I think, all of us, our hearts goes out to the Japanese people for the humanitarian costs. But this is a society and a country, as you said, it’s been struggling in its economic performance for decades.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By the way, these are some pictures from today, Saturday morning in Japan.

SHEILA SMITH: It’s political transition. A new party came to power in 2009. And that has been a little bumpy for governance in Japan.

But this devastation, I think, has helped them focus a little bit more on the national needs of the moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chris Meinig, I’m going to come back to you as we look at these pictures from this morning. I think this may be the airport in Sendai. We were looking earlier at pictures, just horrible pictures, from there.

In terms of the tsunami and further earthquakes, what more do you and other experts look for at this point?

CHRIS MEINIG: Well, with a quake of this size, even aftershocks can be devastating. So, we need, at this point, to — continuing the monitor process, both with our seismic instrumentation around the globe and also what’s happening in the water.

So, we continue to be vigilant at this point to look for additional tsunamis that could hit. It’s not necessarily the first wave that is the largest wave, like we’re seeing in — off our shores now in California, where we’re seeing devastating effects from just the currents, in terms of the marinas, that are going on.

So, we need to be vigilant, listen to the local authorities what is happening in the local regions, and continue to observe the situation as it happens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a likelihood that there will be further — I mean, is it every expectation that there will be aftershocks?

CHRIS MEINIG: Well, with the quake this side, traditionally — size, that’s traditionally what has happened, is that there have been aftershocks and continuing tremors. And they could continue for days at this point. So, we need to — we need to just monitor and pay attention to the situation and observe as the time goes on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally, just quickly to you, Jim Harris. As you look at how Tokyo, at least, has withstood, seems to have withstood a lot of this, does it tell you anything about the preparations there?

JIM HARRIS: Yes.

I mean, I do think it proves that the Japanese have made lots of improvements over the years in their building standards for resisting earthquakes. They learned a lot, because they have had so many big earthquakes to learn from, in part.

But there were studies done following the Kobe earthquake that showed how much better modern buildings did than the older buildings. And I think the same thing will be true in this earthquake, and probably more so, because they have had another 15 years of good construction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Harris, Sheila Smith, and Chris Meinig, we thank you, all three.